Going Down The Drain
Sanzaar Slowly Strangling Southern Hemisphere Rugby To Death.
Super Rugby is dying!
Anybody watching the Super Rugby Quarterfinals must have noticed the empty seats in all four stadiums hosting the games.
A paltry 8500 spectators pitched up to watch the Crusaders beat the Sharks. Over in Australia just 12 067 pitched to watch the Waratahs beat the Highlanders. A crowd of just over 15 000 dotted the seats at Ellis Park where the Lions played the Jaguares, and something around 12 000 saw the Hurricanes play the Chiefs.
These were the crowds attending a quarterfinal of the competition that SANZAAR loudly proclaims to be the best rugby competition in the world.
Sadly, their claim about the superiority of Super Rugby is as empty as the stadiums that have hosted the 120 regular season fixtures around the Southern Hemisphere. Crowd numbers at games have been dwindling for years and there are many reasons for it.
One of the biggest reasons for the decline in attendance is the Super Rugby competition itself.
Since 2011, the competition has been run under contrived conference formats with games starting before the summer is over, and going deep into the winter and on into spring. Prior to the conference era, the competition, including the finals were finished by the end of May.
The conference format includes an increase in local “derbies” which were usually well attended in the early years of Super Rugby but now even they are struggling to attract people.
This system has left people disillusioned with SANZAAR and their running of the “premier” franchise-based competition.
The regular season’s fixture list is out of balance because some teams don’t play each other even once, but are forced to play their own conference members twice.
To make matters worse, SANZAAR allows conference winners automatic entry into the playoffs with home advantage, no matter their actual standing on the overall log, thus creating a truly warped playoff structure.
Attendance numbers have dropped and TV viewing numbers have also declined, suggesting that people have had enough of SANZAAR’s convoluted conference formats.
A brief look at the history of the competition will illustrate the problems and confusion.
Super Rugby has grown somewhat unrestrainedly since its inception in 1996.
Back in 1996, when the Super 12 saw its first season, the competition kicked off on the 1st of March and the final was played on the 25th of May. The teams from Australia and New Zealand were regional teams, a system that has continued to this day.
South Africa used a different system for determining its Super 12 competitors. The top four sides from the previous season in the country’s premier domestic competition, the Currie Cup, played in the Super 12. This method of selection would continue through to the 1998 competition; it was only in 1999 that South Africa adopted the regional franchise system used by the other two participating countries.
The Super 12 format was compact, packed with energy and innovation, and featured the best that each of the three participating countries could offer.
Crowds flocked to watch the games, even in Australia where Rugby Union was very much a minority sport, the fans filled the seats at the stadiums.
Things were working well, but there were stirrings of discontent. Both South Africa and Australia wanted another team in the competition, ostensibly to increase their player pool, but mostly for financial reasons. Crowd attendance at matches was still very good, so gate money, local sponsorship and advertising revenues could be maximised, but mostly because it would result in a slightly different share of the broadcast revenues. The Australians added the Western Force and South Africa added the Cheetahs.
In 2006 the Super 14 was unveiled. Despite the addition of two teams, the final was still contested on the 27th May. But the season now kicked off on the 10th February.
Australia were still unhappy with their representation, they felt that they were due an additional team in the competition, they wanted to match the number of teams playing out of South Africa and New Zealand. This demand took no cognisance of Australia’s much smaller player and talent pool, and the dilution of strength that an additional team would introduce.
They were granted their wish, and the Rebels were formed.
2011 saw the competition change flavour completely. The arrival of another team, those Rebels, expanded the competition to the Super 15 format, and we saw the introduction of the much-maligned conference system. The competition still started in February, on the 18th, but now stretched through to the final on the 9th July, without a break.
By 2012 the competition kicked-off on the 24th February and ended with the final on the 4th of August when the Chiefs beat the Sharks in Waikato 37 – 6.
Super Rugby had spread itself across close to seven months of the year, with an devastating impact on certain local competitions which we will talk about later.
The Super Rugby season had become a monster.
In 2013 it ran from the 15th February to the 3rd of August, in 2014 it was again the 15th February to the 2nd of August.
2015 was a World Cup year, so there were no incoming international tours to the southern hemisphere, and the Super Rugby season, the 20th such season, and the fifth season featuring the expanded 15-team format, was able to finish earlier, ostensibly to allow the various national teams to prepare for the World Cup.
Matches took place every weekend from 13 February until 13 June, followed by the finals series and culminating in the final on 4 July.
This was the final season that featured the initial 15-team format. SANZAAR could not resist tampering with the goose that had laid so many golden eggs in the earlier years.
The administrators in charge of the competition stopped talking about the quality of the rugby and the superiority of the game itself. They started to refer to the competition as their “product” and we heard terms such as “global reach” and “taking the game to the world” and “expansion” – terms you might expect from a global brewing empire or an international vehicle brand, but not from a regional rugby competition! Delusions of grandeur were kicking in.
SANZAAR wanted more! More of everything. ESPECIALLY More Money!
So they added some teams to their Super Rugby competition, and changed everything.
2016 saw the introduction of the most convoluted competition structure in the history of rugby. The conference system was expanded to four, with South Africa suddenly hosting two conferences, including three new teams, the Kings, the Sunwolves, and the Jaguares. (All considered South African, if you can get your mind around that one!)
The competition was restructured to focus on more local derbies and less cross conference games. Games took place every weekend from 26 February to 16 July 2016 (with a break for international matches during June), followed by the finals series at the end of July and culminating in the final on 6 August.
The fans hated it.
Anybody with half a brain could see that the 2016 format was fatally flawed, yet SANZAAR persisted in 2017.
17 rounds of matches were played between 23 February and 15 July – with Rounds 15 and 16 split due to the 2017 mid-year rugby union internationals, and British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand. After completion of the regular season, the four conference winners and four wildcard teams progressed to the finals series, which consisted of quarterfinals, semifinals and a final on 5 August.
Once again, the fans hated it.
The quality of the rugby on offer had deteriorated to simply mediocre, with the exception of one or two of the local derbies. Teams were forced to play safety first rugby in many of their fixtures, especially those that required extensive travelling to out-of-the-way places, across time zones and seasons. Some teams took to rotating their starting squads so that lesser teams were fielded against teams that they considered weaker opponents.
Teams started to figure which games they could bank on winning, those they would win with a bit of effort, and those that they simply had to win. And then there were the games that did not matter. When the Lions sent an “experimental” squad to play the Jaguares in Buenos Aires it was insulting to the fans, the competition, and to the Jaguares. They simply handed a game to the home team.
Injury lists mounted alarmingly, with many international quality players being forced to sit out months, even years of rugby as a result of the massive physical and mental demands of a season that spread over seven months of competition.
And the stadiums emptied out as the fans abandoned mediocrity and sought entertainment elsewhere.
When all was done and dusted, even the most obtuse of rugby administrators had to acknowledge that Super 18 rugby was unworkable and a complete failure at the box-office.
Emergency meetings were held, outside consultants appointed, and paid exorbitant fees, to tell SANZAAR what everyone already knew. SANZAAR ducked and dived as they tried to avoid the obvious, but they had to concede. Super 18 was an abject failure.
Something had to change, or the competition would join the Titanic somewhere very deep and far away. A relic to be discussed, mourned even, but not much more than that.
SANZAAR was forced out of its hubris. They simply had to do something!
Defibrillator Paddles Applied
And in 2018 we saw Super Rugby return to the Super 15 format. Three teams left the competition, the South Africans gave up their Cheetahs and their Kings willingly, while the Australians, kicking and screaming, eventually rid themselves of the Force.
Sadly, the artificial conference system was retained, with the weirdness of a weak Japanese team still playing in the southern hemisphere. This iteration of the competition saw the Japanese shifted from the South African conference to the Australian conference, which was more logical simply in terms of time zones and slightly shorter travel times.
The format was fiddled, but to no great effect, in the group stages there were 18 rounds of matches, with each team playing 16 matches and having two rounds of byes, resulting in a total of 120 matches.
Teams played eight inter-conference matches, the so-called local derbies, and eight cross-conference matches. Simply, they played all the other teams in their conference twice – once at home and once away – and played just once against four of the teams in the other two conferences.
The new format still did not allow for teams to play against all the teams in other conferences!
The top team in each of the three conferences would still automatically qualify for the quarterfinals, no matter their actual standing on the overall log, as did the next five teams with the best records across the three conferences, known as wildcards.
The conference winners and best wildcard team host the quarterfinals. The quarterfinal winners progress to the semifinals, and the winners of the semifinals advance to the final.
Once again, the competition kicked off on the 17th of February, featured a break for incoming internationals and continued into July. The final will be played on the 4th of August 2018.
To No Avail
And, once again, the fans have voted with their feet. The stadiums remained empty across the entire competition, especially in Australia.
Some figures might help illustrate the problem:
Australia dumped the Force and retained the Melbourne based Rebels for 2018. Their decision, we are told, was a purely financial one, with the Melbournites being sports mad and thus more likely to pitch up to watch a game, even if they knew nothing about rugby.
The figures suggest otherwise.
Up to the 30th of June, when the Rebels hosted the Waratahs, the total number of people who had attended Super Rugby matches in Melbourne numbered 78 566. That is an average of 9 821 per game. Their home ground, AAMI Park, can seat 30 050 people. They cannot even fill it to one third of capacity.
Over in Brisbane, up to the 3th of July, the Suncorp Stadium had seen 96 810 fans watch Super Rugby, for an average of 12 101 per game. The stadium can seat 52 500.
In Canberra, home to the Brumbies, the GIO Stadium can seat 25 011 fans.
They do not need all those seats, just 67 128 people attended Brumbies home games up to the end of June, with an average of 8 391. Their lowest was just 5 283 on the 12th of May.
The Waratahs do not announce all their attendance figures, probably in an attempt to obscure the sad reality from their sponsors and supporters. They only announced figures for three games, against the Stormers, Reds, and Sunwolves, while their local newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald estimated a figure for their game against the Blues.
The accumulated figures for the four games came to 59 794, with an average of 14 949.
The Allianz Stadium can, officially, seat 45 500 and saw 44 085 attend the Test against Ireland. On the figures actually released, the Waratahs are only filling their home stadium to one third it’s capacity.
Yet, in Australia’s biggest city, just 12 067 pitched for the 2018 Quarterfinal.
Figures are not much better elsewhere.
In South Africa, the Bulls attracted an average of 15 432 to Loftus Versveld in Pretoria. This is vastly better than the average of some 9 000 for 2017, and was based on local fans expectations of an improvement in their team’s performances under a new coach. Loftus Versveld can hold 51 762 fans, so the improved numbers did nothing to make the stands appear any fuller.
Down the road in Johannesburg championship contenders, the Lions attracted an average crowd of 15 625 to Ellis Park. The stadium can host 62 567, and match fans were thus well short of 25% of its capacity.
The Stormers have the most loyal of all fans, even when times are truly tough and the team is struggling. Unaudited figures tell us that an average of over 24 000 attended the Super Rugby games at Newlands, down somewhat from the average of 34 000 in previous seasons.
The Sharks, despite improving fortunes on the field, still struggled to get more than 12 500 to attend their home games with regularity. Kings Park can hold 52 000, but was mostly an empty shell when the Sharks played at home.
For the record, the Sunwolves total attendance at Super Rugby games in 2018 was 80,608, with an average of 10,076.
The figures are alarming, if not downright devastating!
Super Rugby is in very very serious trouble.
The trouble is so bad, so deep seated, that one wonders whether there is any way of saving this once remarkable competition?
Is There A Way Out of The Mire?
There are so many factors that influence the demise of Super Rugby as an attraction to the fans that one has to separate them into different categories. No one single aspect can be addressed in isolation and hope to repair the “product” – Rugby needs to address ALL the factors.
Let’s look at each factor individually.
The Game Itself.
Rugby has become an overly complex game.
It is difficult for the aficionado to stay abreast of the Laws and the changes that happen with clockwork regularity. It is impossible for the part-time fan, and daunting for the uninitiated. The whole game is comprised of bits of movement and long pauses as the players arrange themselves for the next bit of action. It can be very confusing.
Consider the fact that the official Law Book for 2018, proudly proclaimed as a new and improved edition with simplified language, still comprises of 104 pages of Laws.
Twenty one of them.
Some of them enormously complex. Law 18 deals with the ball in touch and lineouts, with 37 clauses and an interminable number of sub-clauses. Law 19 deals with the scrum, through 39 clauses and more sub-clauses that most countries’ constitutions! This law allows for just 9 penalisable offences and another 8 that result in a free kick.
Over and above the Laws, there are another 24 Regulations that govern the way the game is played.
A simple example: Regulation 17 dictates how a referee (and any subsequent disciplinary committee) must deal with Foul Play. Remember that Law 9 already deals with Foul Play, through it’s 29 clauses and innumerable sub-clauses. Now add in Regulation 17, which consists of 32 pages and 14 741 words, ending with Regulation 17.36.2 – followed by two Appendices, oddly numbered Appendix One and then Appendix Four. (I have no idea what happened to Appendix 2 and 3!)
These are just the Laws and Regulations that govern a ball game played out of a field.
The Laws are poorly written, at best, as they often contradict each other, or give rise to endless confusion in interpretation and application.
The confusion is further enhanced by World Rugby’s penchant for constant fiddling with the Laws. They change more frequently than my daughter changes the shade of her nail polish!
It is a mess, yet World Rugby will tell you that “rugby is a constantly evolving, dynamic game, and that the laws must evolve along with the game.”
Regrettably, much of that evolution has been designed to neuter the game and has taken away much of the flow and simplicity that used to make the game such an attractive proposition for both players and spectators. The modern ruck, which is nowhere near the ruck of decades past, has become an endlessly repetitive part of the game. It is well-nigh incontestable, a source of more penalties than our traffic laws, and a hugely static contributor to the lack of continuity in the game. Once it is called a “ruck” by the referee it is wholly incontestable, hence defences line up off the ruck, behind the “last feet” and simply look to smother the ball carrier the moment the ball is picked up at the back of the ruck, almost inevitably leading to another ruck being formed.
During the four quarterfinal matches in Super Rugby 2018, no less than 678 rucks were formed! In 320 minutes of rugby, 678 rucks!
That is evidence of a game that is strangling itself to death!
The interminable resets of scrums is yet another issue.
Across the same 4 quarterfinal games no less than 55 scrums were required. (18 in the Crusaders/Sharks encounter) – with more than 60% of the scrums requiring a reset after an intervention by the referee. The Law “suggests” that a scrum should be set and completed within 30 seconds of the referee blowing his whistle and indicating the scrum.
This does not happen. Period.
In the 22 scrums that did not require resetting, the average time from whistle to the ball being played by the halfback or eighthman was one minute. 22 minutes of playing time.
In those 33 scrums that were reset, the average time was closer to two minutes from the initial whistle to the ball finally being played or a penalty or free kick being awarded by the referee. That is another 66 minutes of playing time.
Scrums, in total, used up 88 minutes of playing time in the quarterfinals, or fully one quarter of the cumulative time allotted to the games.
Add in the lineouts, 116 of them across the four games, and the evidence mounts of a static game that is strangling itself slowly but surely, to an inevitable death.
One final element that needs a mention – the Driving Maul off lineouts. Whatever your thoughts on this legalised obstruction, that is actually forbidden in the written Laws, it is also a static element of the game. Two squads of monstrously large men pushing and shoving at each other with one man holding the ball way back at the tail of the pile of bodies. Anybody that tries to get to him is instantly rewarded with a penalty, and sometimes even a yellow card. Anyone that brings the pile of bodies to the ground is penalised for “illegal sacking” while few spectators have any idea what is happening inside that pile of men.
We have spoken about the problems with the match officials and their application of the Laws ad nauseum.
The issues of local referees being appointed to control critical games, rather than using the accepted principle of neutral referees is again rearing its ugly head in Super Rugby, although it is not a world-wide blight on the game.
One of the single biggest problems is the manner in which referees have introduced their own versions of the Laws, or interpretations of the Laws that are well wide of the written, published word. These so called “home-made” laws are a blight on the game, and cause enormous frustration both to players and, especially, to spectators. A specific example is the issue of “lifting” in the scrums. The Law is very specific about a penalty against the man doing the lifting, yet we frequently see the referees penalise the man who was lifted, for “not staying in the contest” or some other verbal nonsense. When a player is forced out of the scrum, often in an act of self-preservation to prevent spinal injury, he is penalised.
A collapsing scrum sees the arm shoot skywards to award a penalty that not one single player of the 16 in the scrum fully understands. Nobody knows why the penalty is being awarded, yet there it is.
As for the wheeling of the scrum. Any forward will tell you that it is a specific art, and practiced and honed skill, and it is NOT precluded from the game in the written Laws, yet the referee will penalise any such movement for a whole host of different reasons.
The referees are making up their own laws or versions of laws. This is unacceptable. Yet another blight on the game.
The interventions of the Television Match Official have drawn so much comment and such ire of late that I will not discuss it in detail. Suffice to say that these invisible anonymous officials have become a serious problem as they continually intervene to discuss things the referee might have missed, or to argue with him that something he had dismissed as unimportant was in fact more serious than the referee was accepting; they slow the game down, and often cough up inexplicably incorrect decisions.
World Rugby has acknowledged this problem and is giving attention to the issues.
2018 has seen the scourge of the red and yellow cards completely destroy the contest in more games than is worth reporting. From Test matches to Super Rugby, the plethora of cards and players sent off the field for crimes uncountable has influenced game after game.
In the recent Super quarterfinals, a yellow card shown to Waisake Naholo changed the entire complexion of the game, and directly influenced the result. Whether his card was justified or not, it is the impact of the card that I wish to illustrate. In the Test series between France and the All Blacks, decisions about the awarding of cards, red and yellow, as well as decisions not to award cards, influenced the entire series.
The Red card is supposed to be the ultimate sanction during a game of rugby, shown for deliberate acts of dangerous and foul play, yet it is being awarded for accidental infringements, or even simple accidents as a result of bad timing by both players involved! The red card shown to Benjamin Fall in the second Test between France and New Zealand is a case in point. Fall was moving to catch a kicked ball. So was Beauden Barrett. Fall never took his eyes off the ball, and cupped his arms to catch it. Barrett jumped to catch the ball, Fall was nudged off his line fractionally, and went underneath Barrett. Barrett fell heavily.
Fall was sent off for reckless play. The fact that there was no intent, and certainly no malice had nothing to do with the decision. It was based purely and simply on the fact that Barrett fell heavily.
Barrett, of course, was not sanctioned for deliberately placing himself in danger.
Yellow cards are supposed to be for acts and indiscretions where the level of seriousness falls short of the requirements for a red card. Yet we are seeing yellow cards for being offsides! We are seeing yellow cards shown for attempted interceptions that did not come off, somehow translated into a “deliberate” knock down of the ball! We are seeing yellow cards for late tackles that are marginally late at best, and often innocuous in impact and have no influence on the game at all.
We see yellow cards for the loser in a contest for the ball in the air, because he was “not in a realistic position to catch the ball……………” No attempt to interpret the moment, just the production of the yellow card!
We are seeing yellow cards simply because the referees run out of patience with one or another team. They are using it as a management tool when they cannot control a team through their own officiating. It is a weak response, at best.
The yellow card has become a very serious blight on the game as it most frequently influences the outcome of the game.
It has also introduced unsavoury yet ongoing tactic by captains and other players asking for a yellow card every time the referee signals a penalty, which in my mind is tantamount to cheating!
Cards should be reserved for serious infringements, and should be awarded only after serious consideration is given to the impact that a card will have on the game, not only for the teams playing, but for the paying public who are watching the game!
The plague of inconsistency in interpretation and application of the Laws is nowhere better illustrated than in the difference between referees from the northern hemisphere and those from the south.
Not that the southerners do not have their own inconsistencies between the various national refereeing bodies, each individual referee has his own basket of inconsistencies.
The very fact that coaches and teams need to know who the referee is for their next game before they can finalise their game plans is an indication of the problem. That you have to adjust the way you play the game depending on who is carrying the whistle is simply wrong.
Referees in the Limelight
Referees have become media personalities and have become more and more involved in the game, taking centre stage when the game should be about the players and the match. Referees are writing their autobiographies! Referees have become bigger than the game they are supposed to manage.
When we start seeing referees appear in television adverts for insurance products, or a brand of coffee, there is something very wrong with the system.
We should not have to comment on the performance of a referee, his assistants, and the despised Television Match Officials in any post-match report!
Let’s move on.
Super Rugby Killing Local Rugby
Super Rugby was meant to be the pinnacle of “club” rugby in the Southern Hemisphere, one step down from Test match rugby.
It was meant to be an aspirational competition.
Local players, one level down from Super Rugby wanted to, needed to, perform at their very best in order to be offered a contract to play for a Super Rugby franchise in the short, sharp 11 week season that was Super 12. Super Rugby was contributing to the improvement of rugby further down the food chain.
Provincial or club players aspired to become Super Rugby players, with all the benefits of status and earning capacity that level of the game provided.
In South Africa they had the world’s premier provincial competition, the Currie Cup. It was a hugely successful competition that inspired millions of fans. The top provinces of South Africa battelled it out for bragging rights and status, in the “A” Division of the competition which focussed on the old adage of Strength versus Strength breeds Strength, while a “B” Division allowed for ambition while providing consistent quality of competition one more step down.
It was a good system and a great competition.
New Zealand had their 3-Division National Provincial Championships, that functioned in much the same was as did South Africa’s Currie Cup.
Australia’s domestic competitions were, and are, something of a muddle. They have never had a consistent national competition that has survived through multiple seasons.
As Super Rugby grew bigger, fatter some might say, and expanded out of the February to early May time frame, it began to encroach on the traditional rugby season in the southern hemisphere, the winter months of April through to August. It began to push the traditional domestic competitions out of the way, much like the cuckoo chick evicts the competition in the adopted nest!
The domestic competitions responded by trying to adjust their own programmes to fit in with the Super Rugby fixture list. South Africa introduced a “lesser” provincial competition, the Vodacom Cup, to run concurrently with Super Rugby and to allow the vast mass of domestic players a competition within which they could play rugby while the stars pranced around on the big stage.
The Currie Cup was rescheduled and was played after the completion of the Super Rugby season.
In New Zealand, in 2006, the NPC was replaced by the Mitre Ten competition and the Heartland competition.
In South Africa they continued to fiddle with the Currie Cup, as local unions grabbed what they could and demanded their piece of the action, no matter what effect it had on the quality of the Currie Cup itself. The competition was expanded, contracted, rearranged, and changed, from a strength versus strength system, to an all-comers version and then to all-comers in round one and then a second round of the pre-qualified Super hosting provinces against a couple of the qualifiers. The competition was shifted further and further back in the year, to accommodate the ever increasing time demands of the Super Rugby monster.
Sadly, the Vodacom Cup died, and the Currie Cup is a mere shadow of the competition it used to be.
The Goose that laid Golden Eggs for South African rugby has been strangled to death by Super Rugby’s tentacles.
A secondary impact of Super Rugby in many parts of the Super host nations has been the steady decline in club rugby. Youngsters coming through the ranks at school level used to continue their careers at club level, and would play with ambition and purpose, hoping to be noticed by provincial selectors, both at U/20 and at the senior levels. Making the step up to provincial rugby was not the end of their commitment and involvement at the club. When not involved in their provincial duties, they would play the game back at their clubs. Even international stars would still play club rugby.
I fondly remember two Springboks, 1995 World Cup winners both, arriving at Pirates club practices after they had already been to a Transvaal provincial practice. The benefit of their knowledge, experience, and skills were passed on to their club mates. That was the way of the game.
Sadly, those days are gone. A player like Malcolm Marx has never played a game of club rugby, and probably never will. The requirement that a player be affiliated to a club before he could represent a provincial union has gone the way of the Walkman and audio cassettes.
Youngsters are sucked out of the schools straight into the provincial or franchise academies, and never ever play the game at a more humble level.
Over in Australia they bemoan the fact that the super-stars are paid eye-wateringly large salaries to keep them in the game, yet no money of any worthwhile proportion is spent on developing the game down at the roots.
The monster that is Super Rugby, and all the professional spin-offs that accompany it, have demeaned, denigrated, and often destroyed grass roots rugby.
The Conference System
Let’s turn to another aspect that is a very real problem for long term future of Super Rugby.
Strength versus Strength
The entire structure of the Super Rugby competition causes all manner of inequalities.
The conference structure of the competition is skewed in favour of New Zealand at almost every level. All their franchises are strong, and are founded on a national culture of rugby. The ongoing derbies between conference members means that there is a consistently high level of competition between the teams. The principle of Strength versus Strength applies, and each and every New Zealand franchise and player benefits from the constant exposure to high quality competition.
Across the Tasman, in Australia where rugby is only around the 20th most popular sport, the franchises play an identical double round of derbies against their fellow Aussies (including the honorary Aussies from Japan). Drawing their players from a much smaller talent pool is the first problem the Aussies have to deal with, and then, sadly, a game between the Waratahs and the Sunwolves is simply nowhere near the quality or intensity of a game between the Hurricanes and the Chiefs. The Aussie derbies are frequently an arm-wrestling affair without the massive focus, intensity or flair one sees in a New Zealand derby.
South Africa has much the same problem as Australia. The inconsistent strengths of the different franchises means that not all games are of equivalent quality, although the intensity of the collisions and sheer physicality that is inherent in South African rugby often comes to the fore. But that is not about quality, it is about brute force. And it is self-perpetuating. There is very little cross-pollination from constant exposure to the rugby culture and styles of other countries.
Strength versus Strength only works for New Zealand, in the other two countries they have to contend with a system that does not offer the same level of competition.
The next issue with the Conference system is the artificial nature of qualifying criteria for a place in the quarterfinals. The very fact that each of the geographical conferences supplies an automatic qualifier is already weird. It means that one, or even two teams could conceivably qualify to host a quarterfinal, even if they have less log points than eight or even nine teams above them. In 2017 the Brumbies qualified to host a quarterfinal, despite finishing ninth on the over-all log. They finished behind 3 of the South African teams and all five the New Zealand teams, yet were “officially” recognised as having finished third in the competition.
That is simply wrong.
Some Australian commentators may dispute the contention that the current system is unfair, as they would lose the potentially ‘lucrative” right to host a quarterfinal. I would suggest that a mere 12 000 people pitching to watch a quarterfinal in Sydney is sufficient reason to deprive them of automatic hosting rights in perpetuity!
Demands On Players
We now turn to the demands on the payers themselves.
The impact of the local derbies is already a matter of record. The positives of the strength versus strength system in New Zealand has, however, to be weighed up against the brutal ferocity of such derby games, and the inevitable injuries that result from such high impact games.
South Africa suffers the same injury erosion of their player strength.
Consider simply some names. Eben Etzebeth, Kieran Read, Dan Coles, Jaco Kriel, Pat Lambie, Israel Dagg, Joe Moody, Warren Whiteley…. These are all Test players who have spent all or most of 2018 on the sidelines recovering from rugby injuries sustained in 2017!
The modern game is faster, harder, more brutal, and more physically and mentally demanding than ever in history, players across the world are calling time of careers whilst still in their 20’s rather than the late 30’s of previous generations of players, as their bodies can no longer cope with the impact of the modern game. Just in the last week we have heard of Sam Warburton’s premature retirement from the game in Wales at the age of just 29.
Add the high-impact modern game to the constant flow of high-impact derbies in the Super Rugby competition.
It is becoming unsustainable, flawed.
Super Rugby’s fixture list is seriously flawed. The fact that two teams could play through to mid-April, including a tour of Australasia for one of those teams, before enjoying their first bye of the season, while other teams had already had both their scheduled byes by that time of the year is a simple case in point.
Whomsoever was responsible for that laughable structure should be taken outside and shot.
Now add in the demands of a season that starts in February and ends in August. Seven months of rugby, without including the pre-season training, the preparation, and the build-up to the season. Once Super Rugby is finished, those same players are expected to go and play in their domestic competitions, and the Test level players must also be available for the end-of-the-year Silly Season tours to the north.
Consider that the average South African player will have made one 18 hour and 15 minute long haul flight to Tokyo, perhaps another 15 hour 55 minute flight to Auckland in New Zealand, or an 11 hour 45 minute flight to Sydney in Australia.
Then there is the 17 hour and 15 minute flight across to the Argentine.
Those flights before they play a game of rugby.
When visiting Australia there are also the internal hops up and down the country or over the Tasman too, as the travelling South Africans visit two, three, of four cities for as many games in as many weeks, before the return flight home and another game the next weekend.
From South Africa to New Zealand requires crossing over and into ten different time zones.
Flying into the rising sun Jet lag, dehydration, and the effects of high-altitude pressurised cabin flying cannot be laughed off.
Yet they are added to an unrelenting fixture list that just goes on and on, for seven months of the year.
Of course, the same is true for every team from the Antipodes that crosses over to Africa, or has to fly on to Argentina! The demands on them are slightly less as they usually play just one, maybe two games in South Africa.
Quality Of Rugby
As we consider the reasons why the fans are abandoning Super Rugby, perhaps even the game of rugby itself, as is evident over in Australia, we must also consider the issue of the quality of rugby that is on offer.
It is inevitable that fatigue will impact on the ability of players and teams to deliver the best quality of rugby. The strangeness of the Super Rugby fixture list contributes to this problem when a team like the Lions or the Stormers have to play through to mid-April before they can have a week off. Watching both teams play in the final weeks of that two-month stretch one could see the fatigue, one could see the loss of focus and intensity. It was all so very wrong.
If a player, and there are many who do, plays every one of his team’s regular season games, he will be on the field for 1280 minutes. (No less than 30 players have been on the field for more than 1200 minutes so far this year.)
Think of that as 21 hours of high impact rugby. Twenty one hours of taking collisions, bumps, and bruises, muscle strains and contorted limbs. Think then of the hours in the gym, on the practice field, and running the roads or tracks. Add the hours spent with video analysts, team and group sessions, discussions and lectures. Add in the physios, and the nutritionists, the psychologists and the medical check-ups.
Somewhere, every player is going to get mentally and physically drained by it all.
You may say they are professionals, and I will answer that intensive studies have shown that even highly trained, professional soldiers lose their edge after 30 days in the front lines. That is human, no matter how much you pay them, they will tire, they will become fatigued, and they will suffer injury.
The bottom line is that the quality of the rugby suffers.
The sparkle is replaced by a dullness, and the edge becomes blunted. The excitement is replaced by mere going-through-the motions.
It is inevitable.
And it becomes evident to the fans that they are not being served a superior quality dish anymore. They demand excellence, caviar and blinis, and are being served cold porridge.
Once they have tasted a couple of spoonsful of that cold porridge, they start looking for somewhere else to eat.
The fans are staying away from the game.
However, it is not just the rugby itself that is at fault, nor is it the strangeness of the flaccid Super Rugby competition, there are other factors that drive the fans away from the game.
The Environmental Factors.
Rugby has traditionally been a winter sport, played on Saturday afternoons, with the prospect of a warm toasty pub or home after the game.
The biggest games of a Saturday afternoon would kick off at around 15h00. Sometimes, in some cities where the sun stayed up a little longer, the game might start at 16h00, but most usually the game was done and dusted by no later than 18h00.
There was a logic to those times.
A father could take his kids to a rugby match, and have them home before night set in and the winter chill arrived with the darkness.
Families, friends, clubs and societies could still socialise on a Saturday evening.
When your team played an away game and you could not travel to watch, you scanned the television schedule eagerly, to see whether your team’s game was going to be broadcast that day. If not, well there was always another game you could watch, or you could go and watch some local club rugby.
Then Super Rugby came around, with the payers were calling the pipers to play a different tune. The television broadcasters were demanding back-to-back games so that they could fill their menu with endless rugby. They did not want anyone doing anything else on a Saturday evening except to watch their rugby offerings and thus earn the broadcaster his advertising income.
Now games were scheduled to start at 15h00 and then 17h00 and again at 19h00. Soon that was not enough, they needed extra advertising times, so the mid-afternoon game would start at 15h05, and would have a longer interval, and then finish later, so the 17h00 game was kicked on to 17h15, and the 19h00 game was suddenly out at 19h35.
This was purely a commercial decision to please the broadcasters.
SANZAAR did not give one iota for the inconvenience it would case the fans that might want to go to the stadium.
Have you ever been to Ellis Park?
When you are inside and the bright lights and red painted concrete and the green field make the world look wonderful, it is easy to forget that the stadium is situated in one of the truly dodgiest parts of the entire city.
Parking is a problem, the safety of your car is always a bit doubtful. Walking back to your car, or to catch a bus is a little nerve-wracking. Heaven forbid that you should have to catch the suburban train!
The whole area is just a little scary, and to leave the rugby stadium, at night, around 22h00 is simply not fun.
Whilst other stadiums might be in more friendly environments, the issue remains, it is difficult to convince people to leave the warmth of their homes or pubs/bars to come down in the darkness of a winter’s evening or night, to brave the cold of the stadium, and support their teams.
Without a doubt, the average fan simply stays away.
There are those that will say that an evening game allows them to do whatever they want throughout the day and then to sit back, relax and watch the rugby after dinner, and that is true, but it also means that those who would socialise on a Saturday evening are no longer able to do so, if they want to watch rugby.
An even more obvious downside is that parents are reluctant to take young children to night games because it will mean a late night for the youngsters, whereas an afternoon game is more convenient and attractive.
Nick Mallett was fired from his Springbok coaching job for criticising the cost of Test match tickets in South Africa.
He should have said it much louder, and said it about all the rugby on offer in the country.
Tickets can be expensive, especially if you have to buy two or three, four, or even five to accommodate your whole family. (Nobody goes off to a rugby match alone!)
Add in the cost of transport to and from the venue, and parking if you drove yourself.
Add the price of a programme.
And then there is the over-priced under-quality food and drink on offer at the stadium.
All in all, it leads to a very expensive night out. It might be cheaper to take your family to the local steakhouse for a lump of meat!
I have often wondered at the pricing strategy of some of the stadiums.
10 000 tickets sold at $25 each means gate money of $2 500 000.
But 30 000 tickets at $10 is $3 000 000. Does it not make sense to get more people in through the turnstiles rather than fewer, at a bigger cost?
Those extra 20 000 will be spending some money at the food and drink outlets too. And the atmosphere of an almost full stadium attracts advertisers.
American Baseball went through some seriously tough times as the fans stayed away from the game in 1970s and early 1980s. They thought about it long and hard, and decided to change their entire marketing strategy.
They reinvented the sport as a family event.
They dropped the price of a ticket to almost below the cost of printing them. They upped the quality of the food and drink, they added pizzazz and fun, competitions, giveaways for lucky ticket numbers, free tee-shirts for the loudest cheer in a section of the stands, hot dogs, balloons, clowns, whatever they could come up with to entertain the crowds, especially the kids!
They offered free park-and-ride schemes with secure parking and group safety in a team bus. They cleaned the toilets and painted the walls. They made it all an attractive place to be! They turned baseball into a family institution.
They changed the entire culture of the sport, and they have never looked back!
Super Rugby needs to do something similar.
Super Rugby is a flawed competition, with serious issues.
It is part of a sport that has some very serious issues too.
If SANZAAR and its administrators do not shake themselves out of their current state of mind, this self-defeating hubris about the superiority of their “product”, they may soon find themselves with no product left to sell.
SANZAAR, and more especially their broadcaster partners, have to stop making decisions based simply on making money, and start focusing on making decisions that bring credibility back into the competition and into the game itself.
That will help to bring the fans back.
They can still save the ailing goose, but they need to let go the stranglehold that they have on the poor thing’s neck.
Parochial decisions must be set aside in favour of the good of the whole.
Fix the problems with the match officials, sort out interpretations, appoint neutral referees, and muzzle the TMO.
Scrap the current competition format entirely.
Please SANZAAR, and the suits that work for you, abandon the delusions of grandeur that suggest that you can take Super Rugby to the Americas and the Pacific Islands. You tried expanding once, do not do it again, ever.
Revert to a smaller, shorter, more streamlined competition.
Go back to a Super 12 format, or even a Super 14 if you must.
Abandon the Sunwolves, the competition does not need them and Japanese rugby could not care less, they have their own teams and leagues to look after. Suggest that the Argentineans play in the Americas, but they cannot, perhaps they could still be squeezed into Super Rugby.
Reinstate a proper round-robin format for the entire competition, without any automatic qualifications simply for being the top team in your country.
This will ensure that the best teams earn their playoff spots on merit. It will serve to motivate those other teams that aspire to a playoff slot to work harder, think better, and play clever rugby again. It will improve the quality of the game, and the quality of the Super Rugby “product.”
Reinvent the game back at its roots, forget about global dominance, and get real.